What to Do When Someone You Love Is Chronically Ill

By Karin Sullivan*

Growing up, it seemed like my Dad was always sick. There were stretches of good health, but for some reason my memory clings more to the hard times he had. It always felt like we experienced his personal pain together as a family, –like it was happening to us all. These feelings may be typical because it’'s so difficult to see someone in so much pain… -- and especially when it is someone you love dearly.

When someone you love is chronically ill, your first instinct is to find a way to help. Unfortunately, those good intentions can lead to feelings of frustration. Especially when dealing with illnesses that are not clearly diagnosed or even fully understood by medical practitioners.

Years of searching for answers and suffering can wear down even the most optimistic. But take heart, feelings of helplessness, fear, frustration, loss of hope, and anger are all very natural. You should never feel shame or get discouraged because of these feelings. Everyone experiences them, you are not alone and it'’s important that you don'’t lose sight of that. Remember, even Moses wandered around the wilderness for 40 years before finding the Promised Land.

Here are some important and simple things you can do to show your support:

  • Educate yourself. Learn about their illness with them so you know what to expect, what is happening, and how you can possibly lend support in finding a treatment plan that works for them. There are so many resources available to you today. Knowledge about the illness will make you feel more equipped, but don’t use it to act like a know-it-all.
  • Validate. A major thing that will make a loved one feel supported through their illness is to genuinely validate how they are feeling. Let them know that you know there is something wrong, and that what they are going through is not how they are supposed to feel all the time.
  • Listen. Ask how they are feeling and be prepared to listen for a while. Find out about their private struggles and fears if they feel comfortable telling you. Allow them to vent, and hear their complaints with true concern and consideration.
  • Sympathize. This one is a pretty easy idea, but may be hard to put into action. It is not pity. It is expressing compassion for how they feel. This may be better done through actions than through words.
  • Encourage. Provide meaningful emotional support, encourage them in all their efforts to find wellness, and cheer for them when they seem to lose hope. However, be gentle in your encouragement. Don'’t make it sound like they can do whatever they put their mind to, as this will perhaps discourage them and distance you from them. 
  • Have patience. One of the toughest things about having a chronically ill loved one can be having patience. This may be one of the most important things you can do though. It is easy for them to get frustrated with how they feel, and if you rain frustration down on them as well, this can be an overpowering negative force.
  • Help out. Simple, and very do-able. Someone with a chronic illness can easily feel overwhelmed by their daily tasks. If possible, find something small that you can do to help. Find ways to lighten their load. You can be a greater aid than you (or they) may realize.
  • Be positive. It may be hard for your loved one to be optimistic, which is understandable when they are fighting a daily battle and feel like they’'re on the losing side. So it sometimes falls on you to be the voice of hope. As above though, remember to be considerate in your positivity. The last thing you want to do is invalidate how they are feeling.
  • Be proactive. There are always new things to learn. Seek out answers. Try and help your loved one take charge of their treatment, and not be passively in their doctor’s care. Assist them in actively looking for treatments. You will likely discover more solutions together.
  • Get connected. There are literally thousands of online support groups full of people just like you who are looking for (and sharing) insight from others going through the same experiences. Connecting with these groups and people can be tremendously useful for finding tips and tricks for coping or keeping updated on medical innovations that you can share with your doctor (remember, be proactive). Lots of times support groups have local chapters that meet and get to know each other on a more personal level. This is a great option if you don'’t have access to the internet or would prefer the face-to-face contact.
  • Remember yourself. It can be very easy to forget all about taking care of yourself when you'’re concerned and caring for someone else. It’s important not to lose yourself though. Take some time to indulge yourself. We all need “me” time occasionally.

While I was too young most of the time to do much more than entertain my Dad or put a smile on his face, there are many things on this list that my family, and especially my Mom, did to help support him through his chronic illnesses. And I have it on good authority that our support was felt and appreciated. :-)

A chronic illness may feel just as discouraging for you as it is for those loved ones suffering through them, but don’'t give up. Answers take time and the recovery process can take years. Stay strong, be positive, seek out others that offer support and comfort; and above all, remember your efforts are appreciated more than you can ever imagine. Even the smallest of gestures can have a big impact.

* Karin is the daughter of Jigsaw Health's CEO and co-founder, Pat Sullivan

Related Resources:
  • Healing Well - A thriving community and information resource for patients, caregivers, and families coping with diseases, disorders and chronic illness.
  • Rest Ministries - A non-profit Christian organization that serves people who live with chronic illness or pain, and their families, by providing spiritual, emotional, relational, and practical support through a variety of programs and resources.
  • The Invisible Disabilities Advocate - Helping friends and family better understand chronic illness and pain, as well as learn how to be a source of encouragement and support.
  • Daily Strength - A large, comprehensive health network of people sharing their advice, treatment experiences, and support.
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